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City Council majority votes to ban outdoor cannabis cultivation

Evin Sanders, owner of NorCal Med2You, spoke in opposition to a new ordinance banning commercial cannabis during the Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 17).

Evin Sanders, owner of NorCal Med2You, spoke in opposition to a new ordinance banning commercial cannabis during the Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 17).

Photo by Howard Hardee

Five years ago, Evin Sanders opened his Chico-based business, NorCal Med2You, and he’s been discreetly delivering medicinal cannabis products ever since. As he told the Chico City Council on Tuesday (Oct. 17), that’s a good way to describe local cannabis collectives and delivery services—discreet.

“We are a very small presence,” he said. “I doubt you’ve gotten complaints about us to begin with.”

Still, the council’s conservative majority seemed dead-set on passing a new ordinance that would regulate smoking cannabis in public, ban all commercial activity, create a uniform permitting scheme for growing both medicinal and recreational cannabis and limit all grows to indoors. (Outdoor gardens are currently allowed for medical purposes.)

Which sounds like a big problem for an operation like NorCal Med2You. “If [the council passes] what they’re discussing, I won’t have the right to operate my business in Chico anymore,” Sanders told the CN&R. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world; he says he’ll look into moving his business’ address outside of city limits. The way he interprets the law, the city cannot stop him from driving on public roads and delivering to private residences.

“They’re really not achieving anything but self-satisfaction,” he said.

In May, the council started pushing for a ban on commercial weed activity, despite most local voters favoring Proposition 64, which legalized adult use and commerce statewide. But the regulatory landscape changed again in June, when the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 94 and consolidated regulations for medicinal and recreational marijuana. That prompted City Attorney Vince Ewing to recommend the council’s adoption of a single ordinance, rather than two standalone laws for recreational and medicinal cannabis.

During its meeting on Sept. 19, the council voted 4-3 down party lines to “streamline” all of the city’s cannabis-related laws into one ordinance. When the issue came before the Planning Commission on Oct. 5, that body voted unanimously to recommend banning commercial cannabis citywide, but advised gathering more information before banning outdoor grows (see “Pot discussion rages on,” Newslines, Oct. 12).

On Tuesday, the council had two options: Follow the Planning Commission’s recommendation or disregard it and pass the ordinance as written.

When the floor was opened for public comment, some people spoke in favor of the ordinance and characterized outdoor weed gardens as smelly nuisances that attract crime. But most, like Sanders, opposed further restricting access to cannabis.

“I think you’re grossly underestimating the amount of thought and regulation that needs to go into cannabis generally,” he said, “and more specifically, growing indoors just doesn’t make sense. You don’t grow an industrial product—medicine, really—inside. It’s really expensive and wasteful.”

Chico State professor Mark Stemen opposed the ordinance based on the energy-efficiency and climate impacts of forcing cannabis growers inside, which he argued would erase the progress made during the Sustainability Task Force’s successful Million Watt Challenge, a city campaign through which it called on homeowners and businesses to cut electricity use.

Despite those comments and the Planning Commission’s call for a more informed discussion, Mayor Sean Morgan made a motion to accept the ordinance as written, drawing a second from Councilman Mark Sorensen.

But the council’s progressive bloc wasn’t convinced. Councilwoman Ann Schwab said the panel had an obligation to craft a better ordinance, and Councilman Randall Stone questioned the wisdom of forcing weed-growing operations indoors, especially in old neighborhoods at elevated fire risk.

Stone concluded bluntly: “This is stupid.”

At Councilman Karl Ory’s request, Leo DePaola, the city’s community development director, explained that a permit to grow cannabis indoors will cost $281, including an inspection to make sure everything is up to code, but renters will need the property owner’s permission.

“If they don’t want [to pay the fee] or their landlord won’t let them [grow], they’ll have to look at a different way to get their medicine,” DePaola said.

“But, in our scenario, there is no way to get it,” Schwab responded.

“Sure, you can trade with people …” DePaola began before Morgan cut him off: “I think we’re getting outside the scope of the question.”

Ultimately, the council split down party lines, voting 4-3 to approve the new ordinance, which will return for a final reading next month.

In other council news, Erik Gustafson, the city’s director of public works-operations and maintenance, laid out a staffing plan to incrementally build up his skeletal department.

Following the city’s sweeping layoffs of 2013, Public Works employees have struggled to maintain Chico’s infrastructure, Gustafson told the council. The department has remained too short-handed and underfunded to stay on top of illegal dumping collection; roadway, sidewalk, gutter and bikepath maintenance; and street-tree pruning and dead tree removal, to name just a few pressing needs.

Though Gustafson said he needs more highly skilled, long-term employees, his staffing plan did not outline a timeline for adding more maintenance workers. That will depend on the city’s budget moving forward, and he can’t work out the specifics until ongoing negotiations with the Public Works employees’ collective bargaining unit are complete. The hangup is Gustafson’s proposal to reclassify lower-level maintenance workers, which Public Works employee James Erven described as “taking away our career ladder.”

Ory made a motion to table consideration of the staffing plan until the collective bargaining process is complete, which failed by a 3-to-4 vote down party lines.

Sorensen made a motion to support the plan, which passed 4-3 with Ory, Schwab and Stone dissenting.